Senate Rule 19: Learning to Play Nice

February 10, 2017
Senator Bob Bennett

Walking through the underground tunnels with Senator Bennett to get to a meeting.

By: Andrea

There is a room in the U.S. Capitol building where only senators can enter.

Senator Bob Bennett, a republican, used to tell me stories about that room as we’d walk down the long underground tunnels connecting his office building to the Capitol.

He would often sit down for lunch in that room with then-Senator Joe Biden, a democrat. “He’d talk about Catholicism, and I’d talk about being a Mormon,” said Sen. Bennett. “Joe Biden knows all about the Mormon church.”

Senators often head to that room to escape their staff, eat lunch, or relax in between votes. But, Sen. Bennett explained, over the years the more states elected senators on extreme sides of the aisle, the less cordial and friendly that room became.

Constituents now expect their elected officials to come home to their states every chance they get or there are repercussions. There’s no time for forming relationships and being friends with other members, he’d explain, like there had been in earlier years. Senators don’t want to be seen mingling with someone of the opposite party, it makes them appear disloyal. And forget compromising with someone whose not in your party, that will inevitably cost you reelection votes. Over the years, that has translated into a very bi-partisan Senate.

And that was seven years ago.

Fast forward to 2017, and Senator Marco Rubio suggested where those relationships may have evolved since then. He spoke on the Senate floor this week to express deep concern over the way his colleagues were communicating:

“We are becoming a society incapable of having debates anymore… Here’s what I hear almost automatically from both sides of those debates: Immediately, as soon as you offer an idea, the other side jumps and says the reason you say that is you don’t care about poor people, or you only care about rich people, you’re this, that or the other. I’m just telling you guys, we are reaching a point in this Republic where we are not going to be able to solve the simplest of issues.”

Senator Rubio was reacting to a controversial issue that had happened moments earlier with a few of his fellow senators. It had to do with something known as Senate Rule 19. It’s quite possible you may have heard of it by now. It’s been in the news quite a bit lately.

Senate Rule 19 outlines proper conduct for senators while debating on the Senate floor. The provision states:

“No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”

Basically, Senate Rule 19 is saying… speak respectfully about your Senate colleagues. Sounds like basic communication skills we learned in kindergarten, right?

Well, Senate Rule 19 was brought to the forefront of the news this week when Senator Elizabeth Warren was giving a floor speech. She was voicing her opposition to the nomination of their colleague, Senator Jeff Sessions, to be the attorney general. In her speech she called him a “disgrace to the Justice Department.”

Senate Rule 19

Senator Elizabeth Warren debates on the Senate floor.

After being warned, eventually Senator Mitch McConnell, the Marjory Leader, stepped in to tell her she had indeed violated Senate Rule 19. She was asked to sit down and was banned from making any more comments on the Senate floor about the nomination. You can watch the exchange here:

Clearly, Sen. Warren was not happy about the ruling, as you can imagine. To make her point, she finished her speech just outside the Senate doors while streaming it live. All the while, her supporters were in an uproar! Can you blame them?

I could go on and on about what’s right or wrong here or how it wasn’t fair and other senators get away with it. But, ultimately, what it comes down to is this: She broke a rule. She was penalized.

Doesn’t the same stand true for the rest of us? You don’t pay your bill on time, you’re fined. Your kid bullies someone at school, they get detention. You speed, you get a ticket. You’re caught talking bad about your boss, you might get called into his/her office. Action, consequence. Even if we don’t always believe it’s fair.

Isn’t it funny that grown adults have to create rules like this in the first place? We are supposed to be examples to our kids, or perhaps the rest of society, and yet we sometimes can’t keep our cool. Sometimes we forget those basic rules we learned when we were kids: speak nicely about each other, treat others respectfully, don’t talk bad about your friends, play nicely on the playground.

Perhaps the Senate parliamentarians who drafted these rules were trying to avoid ugly fist fights, which caused them to draft the rule in the first place more than a century ago. Or perhaps they had the foresight into keeping their chamber from becoming much like the irreverent circus show the British Parliament and other governments around the world are often viewed.

Sure, oft times, very heated discussions of great importance are taking place within our Capitol walls. It can be very easy for debates to get fiery. Maybe it’d do those politicians some good if that rule were invoked more often. Sometimes a good kick in the pants is all we need to get on the right track.

Senate Rule 19 sounds awfully familiar to those of us in the real world, don’t you think? Remember the mantra, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Senator Bennett and his wife used to humbly remind us of this one too, “It’s hard not to like someone if you actually take the time to get to know them.”

Maybe some of our disagreements could be solved if we all sat down together for lunch a little more often.

Author: Andrea

Former news reporter and Capitol Hill press guru, wife, mom, and pastry addict.

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  • Reply Joy Candrian February 11, 2017 at 2:12 am

    Very interesting. Thanks for the insight.

  • Reply Lee February 11, 2017 at 10:34 pm

    Loved learning about this rule, of which I had no knowledge. Your blog is needed now more than ever!

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